International Museum Day 2017
Today is International Museum Day, a day set aside by the International Council of Museums to raise awareness of how important museums are in the development of society. This year’s theme is ‘Museums and contested histories: Saying the unspeakable in museums’. It is designed to highlight the role that museums can play in providing safe spaces for difficult conversations and conflicting viewpoints, while promoting shared understanding.
At the museum we often wrestle with the problem of how to present difficult and contested issues. One of the most predominant of these is how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories are told in relation to the development of Australia’s democratic rights and traditions. While Australia’s democracy includes much to be applauded, it is arguably the case that our democratic journey since European colonisation has largely excluded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Moreover, the complex and nuanced history of the ‘frontier wars’ between colonists and First Nations people continues to be mired in argument over the level of violence that took place. And it is only in recent decades, in the wake of major events such as the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal affairs and the 1992 Mabo decision, that major gains in Indigenous rights have been made.
As curators, we believe that the way forward to reconciliation and a shared understanding of Australia’s contested past is through exhibitions, public conversations, and the evocative and powerful objects in our collection. Today we are highlighting one of the works of Aboriginal artist, Kevin Gilbert, to show how objects can help create understanding and meaning in difficult histories.
Kevin Gilbert was a Wiradjuri man from Condobolin, New South Wales, who became the first Aboriginal printmaker. Orphaned at a young age, Kevin and his siblings were exposed to police harassment and lived for a time in a ‘fringe’ camp, attempting to retain their language and culture. Kevin later married but found himself in prison, convicted of murder. He used his time in Long Bay Jail to teach himself to read, began writing poetry, and learnt the art of linocutting, using crude tools and old pieces of linoleum. In 1965 Kevin made a linocut called ‘Massacre Mountain’, an evocative and moving piece which addresses the stories of the massacres of groups of Aboriginal people as told to him throughout his early life. In his later book, Because a White Man’ll Never Do it, Kevin wrote:
Aboriginal leaders tried to organise their spears against the muskets of the settlers … There are numerous testimonies to the white man’s retaliatory and punitive sabre charges against the tribesmen, women and children … Individual Aboriginal men were killed and their women and children raped, then shot … Consider events such as the Namoi River massacre. The Coniston killings. The Murrumbidgee River wipeout. The black extermination drives of the Hawkesbury and Manning Rivers … These and many, many more were the links in the chain of white inhumanity that lives on in the memories of the southern part-bloods today.
The emotion and authenticity of Kevin’s voice in this artwork, and in his writings, helps us to tell some of the story of Aboriginal struggles for rights and justice. The museum continues to collect works like ‘Massacre Mountain’ in order to broaden our own and our visitors’ understanding of the ongoing effects of this contested aspect of Australia’s past.